Speaking truth to power refers to those brave souls who go up against some entrenched power armed only with the truth. Since democracy’s beginning, this kind of truth-speaking has been honoured. In Greek, it is called parrhesia, which Michel Foucault (Fearless Speech, Semiotext(e) 2001) has characterised as “frankness in speaking the truth”. The citizen parrhesiastes says what’s on his mind and identifies himself as the one who knows this truth that he speaks. Parrhesia finds fault with someone powerful; it is always dangerous and risky; it responds to a sense of moral duty.
Foucault tracks the uses of this free and fearless speech from the Greek agora to Christian preaching, and from political and philosophical to social and personal realms. He is concerned with the activity of truth-telling: who is able to tell the truth, about what, to whom, and under what circumstances? How can a truth-teller be recognised? On this last point, it’s wise to be suspicious: like other righteous acts, truth-telling is open to various misappropriations, and truth-tellers may not be as true as they claim. Nevertheless, sometimes parrhesia gets the job done – the truth is heard and the tyrant’s power vanquished.
But how does that work? Is it simply the forcefulness of Reason? Objective truth as a weapon to banish ignorance and deception? The force of light dispelling the force of darkness? Do tyrants, thus lit up as fools or frauds, lose their aura of power and (eventually) fall? Maybe, but I think it’s a lot more interesting than that.
Philosophers seem to believe that humans seek truth because we are rational animals. It strikes me rather that we seek truth first of all because we speak, and we speak because of how our lives are bound up together. Speech is sincerity. It is how I express myself with others. I am obliged to stand by my words, and I can be held to them.
And so, I hear “speaking truth to power” as if it had the same structure as “churning milk to butter”. As if it were alchemy. The activity of truth-telling as essentially transformational and generative. The speaking and the truth and the power of “speaking truth to power” are not separate things. It is not the subjective wielding of objective fact against an external force. Speaking, truth and power coincide.
Telling the truth in this way, I find my words are suddenly fresh and alive. I discover truth in the experience of my voice in the world and recognise myself in its saying. I can hear it in others’ voices, too. Sometimes it conjures up a delicate and tender moment. Sometimes it roars. Sometimes it swoops up on a burst of laughter. It doesn’t matter; the power of tyrants (within and without) – those who are convinced by the dead certainties of common knowledge – is simply undone. Our strength is produced in such fearless speech.